NEW YORK — It was a mandatory ritual of New York politics, but for Mario M. Cuomo, it was a ritual of another sort.
Fresh from attending his daughter's wedding, the governor of New York stood amid a marching band at the head of the Columbus Day parade on 5th Avenue. As Cuomo insisted yet again to a crowd of reporters that he is not a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, spectators shouted, "Run, Mario, Run!"
Mayor Edward I. Koch, at Cuomo's shoulder as the parade moved toward St. Patrick's Cathedral, offered encouragement for a convention draft. "We should select Mario Cuomo," Koch said--praise that the governor quickly batted away with banter.
From Moscow to Manhattan to California--wherever he goes--Mario Matthew Cuomo sprinkles political denials like a reluctant Johnny Appleseed. The other day, in Rochester, N. Y., he even joked that his own mother doesn't believe he isn't thinking of running. A couple of days later, using his 86-year-old mother as a lending library of aphorisms, he quipped to a delighted audience: "My mother said, 'Stay out of drafts.' "
Still, a serious fact remains: Despite his professed lack of interest in the White House, Cuomo continues to cast a giant shadow over the formal Democratic presidential field--a shadow that could grow even larger if the economy seriously falters. He has emerged as an important conscience of the Democratic Party.
"When I am outside of D. C., the only thing that people around the country want to know is, 'Do you think there is a chance that Cuomo can get into it?' " said Harrison Hickman, a Democratic political pollster, in a view seconded by many other political consultants. "He is the one person in America on the Democratic side who could rewrite the rules of the standard nominating process. . . . He is uniquely situated to run at the end if there is no obvious choice."
"There is great interest and he would cause a sensation if he got into the race," added Robert D. Squier, founder of the Communications Co., a Washington-based political consulting firm. However, Squier cautioned: "Already people in the process are falling in love with the candidates in the race."
Cuomo attributes all the attention to a "vacuum period" and to "celebrity," adding that it all will change when the primaries actually begin.
'What Was His Name?'
"When all these people start winning in Iowa and New Hampshire, they will become celebrities, too," he said. "They will get their name on the cover of Newsweek, on the cover of Time, on the cover of U.S. News & World Report. They will get eight days in a row on national television and you will be back to Cuomo . . . what was his name?"
But for the moment at least, there is a deep longing among many Democrats for someone else, whether Cuomo, or Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey or Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia. Both Bradley and Nunn have said they will not run in the primaries and are not candidates for President.
In an interview with The Times, Cuomo admitted that theoretically it would be possible for him to accept a draft, run for President and still manage New York state.
The exigencies of governing, especially during the legislative session and budgetary process, which he has stressed preclude entering primaries, would not come into play during the general election.
"If you would go from the convention on, you would be in the Roosevelt position," Cuomo said. "It would mean from July '88 to November '88, which is theoretically the summer recess."
"The doldrums," added Fabian G. Palomino, special counsel to the governor and Cuomo's longtime friend and political confidant. "That is why he can go to Russia."
Rejects Talk of Draft
Cuomo dismissed talk of a draft, however, as counterproductive. "I think to encourage this kind of talk for a moment is to depreciate the candidates, hurt the process. It's not good. That's why I said on the 'Phil Donahue Show' I would consider making a Shermanesque statement if that helps the process now. I think as long as the possibility of an open convention is taken seriously, people don't look seriously enough at the existing candidates."
He paused for a brief moment. "On the other hand, I am not convincing anybody."
The political process was far different when another New York governor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, gained the Democratic nomination in 1932--a fact Cuomo tells audiences. Roosevelt made only a few speeches. He faced no primaries to consume time and attention. When John F. Kennedy sought the White House, he ran only in four primaries, Cuomo also reminds listeners.
The other night, while Cuomo was lecturing at the New School for Social Research in New York's Greenwich Village, a man in the audience got up and announced that he was frustrated when the governor said he would not seek to lead the nation.